The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.
In the thirteenth chapter of his Gospel Luke tells us a story about the last time Jesus is allowed to teach in a synagogue. It is a testimony to an internal struggle Jesus had between embracing his ancestry and his call to a prophetic ministry.
10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
From the birth narrative in his first two chapters; Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and circumcision right down to Luke’s pointing out the first time Jesus preached in his home-town synagogue Luke never lets us lose sight of Jesus’ Jewishness. And now he tells us about the last time of teaching in a synagogue. But never does he fail to remind us that Jesus’ relationship with his Jewish heritage was conflicted. Luke makes especially clear that when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the ninth chapter Jesus was driven by the agenda of the Prophets that proceeded him. Jesus never backs away from either his pedigree and heritage nor his burning intent to save the Judaism of his day from itself. The leaders of the religious and secular establishments feared him as a revolutionary – certain to get them in trouble with their Roman overlords. Jesus is the quintessential illustration of radical faithfulness.
In a backhanded sort of way we can see reflections of how Donald Trump sets himself apart from the leadership of the party for which he is its standard bearer and the way the establishment leaders are fearful of wholeheartedly embracing him and his candidacy. And there’s another parallel and that is to Islamists who want to replace civil law with laws reflecting their values, goals and standards, that is Sharia Law. I think it’s interesting that the word Sharia translates into English as “the way”.
Quakerism is indebted to Frederick B. Tolles for describing the very similar radical faithfulness of George Fox. He said that Fox, who persisted in calling himself ‘son of God’ and who later acknowledges that he had many brothers and sisters, was demanding nothing less than that the military ruler of all England should disavow all violence and all coercion, make Christ’s law of love the supreme law of the land, and substitute the mild dictates of the Sermon on the Mount for the Instrument of Government by which he ruled. Fox would have him make England a kind of pilot project for the Kingdom of Heaven. In that, Fox was a revolutionary. He had no patience with the relativities and compromises of political life. His testimony was an uncompromising testimony for the radical Christian ethic of love and non-violence, and he would apply it in the arena of politics as in every other sphere of life. It is not recorded that Cromwell took his advice. Neither is it recorded that Fox ever receded an inch from his radical perfectionism.
Luke gives us no clue as to where this story takes place. Since the earliest development of the Synagogue system there was an openness to itinerant teachers called ‘the freedom of the synagogue’. It was on a sabbath that in a local synagogue Jesus was teaching. Luke writes: 13:10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
11And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.
Luke gives us a description not a diagnosis. I recall seeing a woman on the streets on a town in Japan who walked bent double. It’s easily understood how this woman in the synagogue stood out from the other women who were gathered there. Jesus stopped preaching and started meddling.
12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Given that earlier in this same chapter much is made for the need for repentance that this act of uncommon compassion and healing occurred without any discussion of the cause of the woman’s illness or of any need for confession of sin. Some people are upset by the way in which God’s love is extended, healing is offered and grace is received. It was a simple pronouncement that broke the chains of what held her captive: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
So here we have a question. Is the importance of this story that it is a miracle healing or is it a pronouncement story built on the conflict between Jesus and the shape of the Judaism of his day? This particular text gives evidence of both: it is a healing that leads to an important pronouncement. The purpose of understanding this, however, is that it might aid us in appreciating the uniqueness of the narrative itself: it is a miracle with something to say about God!
Some miracles stories go to great lengths to show the run up and then the payoff from the miraculous action. But here the miracle is hardly even described. At most Jesus is said to have laid his hands on her. Luke rushes past the graphic physical description of the miracle to get to the conflict. And, that by itself should have set off a storm of protest. The two things of importance is that with a word Jesus announces her freedom from the crippling spirit and when she is healed, the healing happens in the form of the divine passive (“she stood up straight” actually reads in the Greek as she “was straightened up” — assuming God as agent). God not only “set free”, but “straightened” her in the synagogue on the Sabbath. So in the moment in which we should see celebration of the woman’s being made whole, while the woman is standing up straight and praising God we read:
14But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”
15But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
A synagogue leader in tries to shame Jesus with the congregation by pointing out that the healing was work — something that could be done on any of the six days set aside for labor instead of the holy Sabbath. Like his accuser Jesus responds to the crowd pointing out that any of them would take care of an animal needing help on the Sabbath — so how much more should they respond to a human being in need. In the Greek both the synagogue leader and Jesus are saying more here than our translations make clear. The synagogue leader uses the Greek verb dei to make his claim about the ought of work. Luke loves this verb in his narrative because it describes what it is necessary for Jesus to do as God’s Prophet. This is why Jesus’ response picks up on the synagogue leader’s claim. The ought here is not about a divine necessity to work on the other six days, but based on a divine necessity to have this woman be freed from bondage on the Sabbath. To make the point even clearer, Jesus calls her what she really is a “daughter of Abraham.” Jesus doesn’t supersede Jewishness with his claims about the Sabbath, but rather intensifies their theological grounding in the necessity of God and God’s purposes to heal, liberate, and unbind.
17When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
When God is up to something, prepare to be unbound: whether from confining diseases, or social norms about persons with disabilities, or even our sacred cows. The fact that Jesus does this within the Jewish tradition and for a daughter of Abraham shows that God keeps showing up, drawing the circle just a little wider and unleashing a divine horizon that engenders rejoicing over the loosing of every human bondage. On one hand it’s a warning to those of us who see ourselves as protectors of what has been, conservators of the status quo. Sometimes despite ourselves, we get a glimpse of the great and glorious thing that God is doing, celebrate the expansion of grace that is there for all, and give God our thanks and praise. The God who shows up does not lead us out of our fellowship, but more deeply into it .. with others and with a Jesus who is committed with his very journey to the seemingly strange thing God deems as necessary.